A farewell love letter to Utrecht
Falling in love is hard, especially with a city. But you are an easy city to fall for, even in lockdown.
Obviously you’re gorgeous, the postcard picture of what a Dutch city is supposed to look like full of bicycles, little bridges, and narrow houses along winding canals. But it’s more than that. You’re clever, practical, great with kids, and — above all — delightfully weird.
We’ll start with the superficial. A tourist book I once read described you as something like “Amsterdam’s cooler, more grown-up cousin”. People from the Netherlands also make flattering comparisons — including in the chorus of a recent Dutch YouTube song that says Utrecht is “way more beautiful than Amsterdam / in the centre of our small land”.
Nearly every resident I’ve met has felt the need to tell me that “Utrecht’s more like a town than a city”, and they have always meant that as a compliment. You’re small enough to feel like a sweet university town — and are mercifully unbothered by stag parties — but you’re still big and international enough that there’s probably an OK gig on somewhere (if there isn’t a pandemic) and there’s no problem ordering most kinds of takeaway.
It’s no wonder that so many of your residents are people who fell in love with you as students, and returned when they had families or even when they retired. You cast that kind of spell.
And even though you’ve just reached your 900th birthday you get better looking as you age. The prime example is how you undid a terrible decision you made back in the 1960s. For half a century one of the first things visitors saw of you was a five lane motorway that ran under the shopping centre and meant there was no longer a ring of canal around your old town. Then — only in the last few years — you finished turning that road back into a canal again.
Now instead of traffic there is water, ducks, the occasional paddle-boarder, and couples of all ages out for rides in little boats, sometimes with a bottle of wine chilling in a metal bucket. I’ve happily kayaked under the mall. It’s a whacking great visual metaphor for how, with care and willingness to change, the future can be made more beautiful.
Only you would decide to leave a giant flying saucer on top of one of your most admired buildings. Other cities might, like you, have thought It was fun to set the UFO up for an art exhibition around the Millennium. But only you would say “Hell, let’s keep it up there. Yeah, with the lights and the smoke coming out of the hatch each night. Should we keep the giant teapot on top of the car park opposite too? Obviously, yes.”
Only you would install a “fish doorbell” each spring to help fish cross the city (and only your city council would announce this with a quote in English from the White Stripes song “My Doorbell”).
There are so many of your little quirks I cannot list them all. I’m fond of your many murals, especially the one commemorating one of the most brilliantly weird science experiments ever. It was while researching in Utrecht in 1845 that the Dutch mathematician Christoph Hendrik Diederik Buys Ballot stuck a brass band on a train, asked them to play a single note, then listened as they zoomed past… and thus proved the “Doppler effect” proposed only a few years before by the Austrian physicist Christian Doppler. It has long amused me that it was thanks to a baffled brass band that we came to figure out we’re living in an expanding universe.
And, of course you have a rainbow pedestrian crossing to celebrate Pride. So do other cities. But only you would go that bit bolder and more Dutch by also creating the longest rainbow cycle path ever made.
Great with kids
Survey after survey indicates the Netherlands has the happiest children in the world (the British writer Ben Coates suggests this may be connected to the fact Dutch parents think bread with chocolate sprinkles is an appropriate breakfast food).
Could Utrecht, in turn, have the happiest children in the Netherlands? Several Dutch families I have met insist you do.
I sometimes wonder if you were actually designed by a committee of kids. While in London every other shop seemed to be an estate agents, in the tiny radius of streets near our house in Utrecht there are no fewer than five pizza places and two ice cream parlours
From one corner of the city to another there are playgrounds and city farms. Like Snow White, cute animals seem drawn to you. Griftpark has its own bunny hill area (“konijnenheuvel”) full of well-fed rabbits to stroke, but there are patient farm animals out to the west in Maximapark and out east in the glorious, grand parkland that is Amelisweerd.
Even your landmarks, such as the old observatory, the windmills and the railway museum, look a bit like illustrations from a map inside the cover of a children’s book.
And some of your road traffic signs are literally taken from children’s books. The artist Dick Bruna is your favourite son and his artwork is referenced everywhere. Of course there is Miffy (really called Nijntje, yes, I know) popping up in her own museum, but also as statues, in gift shops and in at least one set of traffic lights where the human shapes are swapped for the iconic bunny.
When Corona hit, even the safety signs in the pharmacies were in the Bruna style. And in windows of houses and shops across your city, I see the same poster of a face wearing the city’s Dom tower like a hat and hugging a heart above the slogan “zorg goed voor elkaar” (take good care of each other). A postcard of it was given to us by the cheerful city hall worker when we registered as immigrants, another part of your warm welcome.
What I will miss most
I could write a poem just to your transport infrastructure — your giant futuristic bicycle parking garage, your network of cycle paths, your great train connections and your abundance of electric car chargers. I will miss hearing the echoing cheers when a goal is scored at the Galgenwaard stadium, and the sweet smell of coffee cycling past the Douwe Egberts factory.
But you’re not perfect. Yes, you are cosmopolitan for the Netherlands but you’re still — how can I put this delicately? — somewhat staid and monocultural, at least compared to my first true love (London). The parts of you that remind me most of that city, such as Lombok, just make me miss it more.
And I certainly can’t pretend being with you has always been easy. My wife, daughter and I have all missed our family and friends back in the UK terribly. No amount of scenic cycle journeys, hot cinnamon rolls from the District bakery, or pleasant evening dog walks in Wilhelminapark can make up for that.
And it’s hard getting to know new people at the best of times in the Netherlands, but it’s even harder if you move somewhere in lockdown. However, we’re grateful for the few friends we did make among our neighbours on our street. It is a street that is like you in microcosm as it’s pretty, good with kids, and clever and quirky in equal measure (it even has its own street song, updated with a new verse every year). We will miss those neighbour friends, and wish we had got to know them better.
Though writing this makes me realise I’m being overly dramatic. Because we’re not going far, yet. We’re only moving to one of your sister cities in the Randstad family, for reasons I won’t bore you with here.
And the fact is I’ll still be coming back to see you. Well, I’ll be commuting over to Leidsche Rijn every week at least.
So this is not a full goodbye but more a “tot straks” (see you later). Keep doing what you do, you crazy gorgeous city you,